The Higher Education Strategy Review Group, widely reported to favour the reintroduction of third-level fees, is finally due to report shortly. There is no convincing argument against the return of third-level fees. In fact, it is likely that the Irish education as a whole is damaged because of the persistence of ‘free’ third-level education.
The Green Party were granted a stay on the reintroduction of fees as the price of agreeing a revised programme for government last October. The current crisis in third-level sector funding is putting fees back on the agenda. However, even in the absence of a funding crisis in our colleges there are strong arguments in favour of charging individuals for the benefits they accrue from becoming graduates.
While there are positive benefits to society and the economy from greater numbers of graduates, research has shown that the majority of the benefits from having a third-level education accrue to the individual through higher earnings. This suggests that the majority of the cost of third-level education should fall on the student benefitting from it. While there is also a private return to primary and secondary education the social returns are much greater at these levels.
This cost is undoubtedly out of the question for some. This however is not an argument in favour of universal subsidies for students, but rather requires that schemes are devised so that those who wish to attend are not precluded by lack of access to funding. This could be in the form of student loans. Student representatives have railed against saddling graduates with debt as they begin their work lives, though the greater earning potential of graduates is the other side of this coin.
It is difficult to accept that we do not have the wit to devise a system to enable students to fund their degree courses where they cannot access up-front funding. There are several international schemes to which we can look for insight. The difficulties of designing such a system are not sufficient justification for the persistence of paying the way for those students who can pay.
Another argument against the reintroduction of fees which does not stack up is that graduates already ‘repay’ the state’s investment in their education because they pay a greater amount in tax on their higher earnings. Fortunately, tax payers are not able to decide the uses to which their own taxes are put. The logical extension of this argument would be that we give tax rebates to those who remain well and don’t use the health system or we should reduce the tax rate for those who have moved here to work after completing their education in another country.
Would supporters of this argument favour charging a lower tax on individuals who did not attend third level but who are high-income earners through their entrepreneurial ability?
When fees were abolished it was argued that this would increase participation at third-level among those in lower socio-economic groups. This argument ignores the opportunity cost of funding attendance at third level; something which is particularly pointed given our current fiscal difficulties. In the context of the overall education budget funds used to pay third-level fees are not available for other purposes.
Arguably the most critical barrier to progression to third-level for many is not an inability to create a student loan system but a lack of support structures for children at primary and secondary levels. Students slip through the educational system long before there is a prospect of going on to third-level due to ineffective and inadequately resourced primary and secondary structures. The money that is being invested to generate largely private returns to participation at third-level could more fruitfully be invested in upgrading and updating our schools.
This has implications also for our commitment to engineering a ‘Smart Economy’. The focus of initiatives in this regard are almost completely on increasing research output, providing more postgraduates and spin-offs from our universities and institutes of technology. This makes no sense when we have primary and secondary students without access to basic learning technologies and broadband. Much needed reform of the leaving certificate has also been halted due to a lack of resources.
It’s time the government recognised the opportunity cost of the current model of financing third-level institutes. Charging students for third-level will free resources for primary and secondary levels, which could improve equity in our education system and contribute significantly to generating a ‘smarter economy’.